Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Where’s the beef (and chicken)? Pass closures add to supply chain problems, leading to empty grocery shelves in Spokane

A section of the frozen foods is almost bare Monday at the Safeway at Mission Avenue and Hamilton Street in Spokane. A handful of other sections were running low as well, including milk and other dairy products.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Juliann Colbert went to the Wandermere Fred Meyer in North Spokane on Sunday to get some groceries for the week. She ended up snapping cellphone pictures showing empty shelves where chicken, beef and salads were supposed to be.

“There was no chicken at all,” Colbert said. “I told my husband, ‘We better get to Costco.’ ”

Jim and Juliann Colbert left the Costco, at 12020 N. Newport Highway, Monday afternoon with a shopping cart spilling over with all kinds of items. They had no way of knowing that, even though Costco had what they needed, the store was 20 truckloads behind in freight.

“It’s kind of a national thing,” Jim Colbert said Monday. “I don’t understand why they blame it on the (Snoqualmie) pass being closed.”

Juliann Colbert agreed: “I’ve lived here all my life. Every winter they close the passes. I smell a little funny business.”

Just minutes after the Colberts filled their vehicle with their spoils from Costco, a look Monday evening at the same Wandermere Fred Meyer found most shelves from Juliann Colbert’s Sunday cellphone photos had been re-stocked, at least by 50%.

Fred Meyer store manager Dan Gwynne sympathized with the Colberts, but he said the closures, which shut down Stevens, Blewett, White and Snoqualmie passes at the same time, presented a “perfect storm” for Spokane retailers.

“I think everybody is struggling because we all pull from the West Side,” said Gwynne, whose store is owned by Kroger. “There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to get trucks in. When we did, it was all hands on deck to get them out.”

The empty shelves this weekend rekindled memories of the hoarding that took hold as soon as the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020.

The resulting trade disruptions and higher prices have continued here and across the nation, but most local sources believe that the latest incident centered mostly on transportation disruptions caused by last week’s snow storm that caused a 90-hour closure of Snoqualmie Pass.

Colbert noted that most of the things she found missing Sunday at Fred Meyer were meat and produce or “healthy things.”

“If you wanted chips or soda and junk, I noticed they had plenty of that,” she said. “It’s the stuff that’s good for you” that was missing.

Gwynne said there’s a reason for that. Most of the missing items were perishable.

“To have the freshest produce, you have to have supply,” he said. “It’s not like we keep a lot of backup stock. People are buying produce for three days from now.”

The pass closures stopped all trucks from the West Side and forced truckers to head south to Portland and take Interstate 84 through the Columbia Gorge, then north to the Tri-Cities and stores in Spokane.

“Some customers didn’t know what was going on,” Gwynne said. “I can’t anticipate this happening again. Again, it was like a perfect storm.”

Colette Taylor, assistant general manager at the north Costco, agreed. She said her receiving department was 20 trucks behind in getting freight from the West Side.

“It will take us a while to catch back up,” she said. “Everybody has been pretty good. People very much understand what is going on.”

Most stores see shortages

Gwynne said he heard from district managers from Safeway that their suppliers suffered the same fate.

At the Rosauers at 1724 W. Francis Ave., many of the shelves were empty on Sunday, said store manager Jim Dailey. He didn’t get chicken products in for a week.

“It’s been sitting on the other side of the pass for four days,” Dailey said Monday. “It’s going on all over the country.”

A the same time snow storms hit the Cascades, a winter storm dumped more than a foot of snow across parts of the Mid–Atlantic just after the new year, and sweeping weather systems have made road conditions difficult in many other parts of the country in the past two weeks.

For example, the 20-plus-hour traffic jam last week on I-95 near Stafford, Virginia, paralyzed a fair number of grocery delivery semi trucks.

“The winter months are always challenging,” said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for FMI, a food industry organization. “But we’ve seen weather patterns that we’re not used to in terms of frequency and magnitude, from the West Coast to the East Coast.”

In Spokane, Dailey said he finally started getting his trucks in on Sunday night. By Monday afternoon, many of the chicken and meat products had been restocked.

It was the latest shock to a supply chain that has been spotty, he said.

“It’s been hit and miss for the past two years,” Bailey said. “But it got really bad when the passes closed. That’s going to have an ongoing impact on shortages.”

Inflation hits local markets

Prices for almost everything have gone up at the same time, Bailey said. And customers have let him know about it.

“Prices are up in every store in the country,” he said. “But, we are still selling lots of meat and seafood.”

Grocery prices rose 6.4% over the past 12 months ending in December, the largest increase since 2008, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics index of prices. And for subcategories such as beef, prices rose a staggering 20.9%.

Colbert said she had a hard time pinpointing what products cost more.

“I know there is a marked increase in my overall bill at the grocery store, and it’s much higher,” she said. “We are buying less and paying much more.”

Supply chain issues

Taylor, of Costco, said she believes the latest shortage will turn out to be a one-time blip, despite ongoing concerns about the current surge of COVID-19 cases.

“I don’t think we will have a problem with shortages going forward,” she said. “We’ve had no problems with our vendors.”

But across the nation, supply-chain problems are no longer just about shipping containers sitting in ports or out at sea, waiting to be unloaded. They are also about the slowing of the production of goods that the United States imports.

In China and the United Kingdom, some municipalities have once again shut down factories, and thus slowed orders for certain ingredients and food products for U.S. imports.

“A lot of our ingredients and products come from countries that have had their own spikes,” Baker said. “Some countries have taken a very strict approach and shut down manufacturing, so that slows the whole process down. It’s not just a domestic issue, it’s about how other countries are dealing with omicron.”

Pandemic buying

The North Side Costco had a full supply of Kirkland-brand paper towels and toilet paper on Monday. However, that has not always been the case, Taylor said.

“We could get a whole truck load of paper products and be sold out that same day,” she said.

Some consumers haven’t noticed any shortages. Lisa Basinger, of Spokane, walked out of the Costco on Monday with a shopping cart full of bottled water.

“It seems (stocked) like it always is,” she said of the store’s inventory. “It’s always busy.”

Basinger had no way of knowing that the store was out of bottled water until minutes before she arrived. Taylor said her receiving crews typically work from 3 a.m. to about 9:30 a.m. unloading trucks.

However, with the backlog of freight, the crews unload every truck as soon as it arrives.

“I definitely feel we will be busy later this week,” Taylor said, when the shelves finally get restocked.

Virus surge

The rapid spread of the omicron variant has meant more work for stores – more deep cleaning, a return to masking and social distancing – just as more employees are out due to illness or quarantine.

On a Monday call with 27 food industry chief executives, Geoff Freeman, CEO of the industry organization Consumer Brands Association, said more employee absences were reported in the past two weeks than in all of 2020.

“That’s remarkable,” he said. “Throw on top of that being down 120,000 truck drivers nationally, and another 10% of workers being absent at food manufacturing facilities, and you’re putting a lot of pressure on the system all at one time.”

Bailey, the manager of the Spokane Rosauers, said his staff has been hit hard. He had three employees out with COVID-19 on Monday.

“It’s a continuation of the past two years, pretty much,” he said.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.